This article was first published in print in Sluice Magazine and then on their website in 2017. I've decided to publish it on my website because I hope its content still resonates in 2018. It addresses issues of instrumentalism in the arts, artwashing, living creatively and cultural democracy. As I wrote in 2017, I believe "it is still possible to conceive of art as part of living creatively, as part of everyday life, as local cultural democracy, as artistic autonomy." It's time to talk about how...Read More
It’s been almost 50 years since Jennie Lee published her white paper A Policy for the Arts – The First Steps (1965). It was Britain’s first state arts policy. Some revere it. For others, the white paper ushered in a period of government instrumentalism in the arts, increasing the powerful influence of the Arts Council. Writer and theatre maker Stella Duffy has called for the arts and culture community to mark the anniversary and is asking people to consider ‘how far we’ve come, how far we HAVEN’T come, what has changed, what else there is to do – what hope is still here for arts for all’ (Duffy, 2015). I thought I’d respond by suggesting that there is little to celebrate in Lee’s white paper. Perhaps things haven’t really changed that much?
First, let’s look at some positive responses to Lee’s A Policy for the Arts. Deborah Bull, a dancer, writer and broadcaster, and director of cultural partnerships at King’s College London, described the 50th anniversary of the white paper as ‘a significant date’ for ‘anyone with an interest in policy and the arts’ in her foreword to the recently published report Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014 (Doeser, 2015, p. 3). The report suggests that without the ‘persistence’ of ‘pioneers’ like Lee, we would not have arrived at the ‘general consensus in the arts sector and government about the value of arts engagement for children and young people’ that we, apparently, have reached today (Doeser, 2015, p. 4). I must point out that the report is not complacent about the tasks still facing arts education in future years.
For recently departed Arts Council England Chief Exec Alan Davey, Lee was a key figure. He singled Lee out for praise in his evangelistic article entitled Great Art for Everyone: Is There a Point? You Bet! (2012):
In the time of Jennie Lee, the first ever Arts Minister, appointed in 1964, we probably reached an equilibrium for the first time: that we fund the best - from wherever it emerges or is shown - and make it available to the most. No dumbing down, no condescending - we make the best art happen and we make sure as many people as possible can benefit from it. That's what Great Art for Everyone is. That's why I'll shout it from the rooftops. (Davey, 2012)
Today (25th February 2015), acting CEO of Arts Council England Althea Efunshile blogged that a ‘key theme’ of Lee’s white paper ‘was the better alignment of “excellence” on the one hand and “greater engagement” on the other’ – influences that remain ‘twin pillars’ of Arts Council England’s mission of Great art and culture for everyone (Efunshile, 2015). So it would appear that, for some (perhaps many), the legacy of Jennie Lee lives on – an arts policy that’s worth celebrating. I have some serious reservations…
I wonder whether that, by sticking to an outmoded and weak arts policy that’s now a bit long-in-the-tooth, arts and culture are in danger of missing an opportunity to REALLY redefine how we think about, fund, promote and work within the field and, critically, to rethink arts and culture from the grassroots up, rather than the top down. As a critical theorist, I’m suspicious of policy. The spectres of hierarchy, paternalism, bureaucracy, technocracy, homogeneity, etc. loom behind a thin veil of ‘it’s for the people – for everyone’ rhetoric. Lee’s paper, like current arts policy, is an attempt to democratise the arts. It ignores the more radical ideology of cultural democracy. Present policy wants to get more people to get involved in existing arts and cultural provision – it supports an ‘official culture’ and ignores or belittles other equally valid forms of cultural activities. This causes justifiable concern amongst some people involved in the field, myself included, because, as Eleonora Belfiore pointed out in 2002, ‘the fact that so much of public money goes to art forms the consumption of which is effectively still the reserve of the well-educated and the wealthy (after over 50 years of “pro-access” policies!) is undoubtedly a source of unease’ (Belfiore, 2002, p. 104). I suggest little has changed since Belfiore wrote so candidly. Lee’s white paper was one element in an arts policy that led actually excluded many working class people (and people from many other backgrounds as well). Sophie Hope explained this concisely quite recently:
With their intentions to democratise culture and take “quality art” to the working classes, the TUC, Centre 42 and the Labour government in the 1960s missed the opportunity to recognise cultural democracy by failing to acknowledge or fund the “cultural practices of the working classes” (Hope, 2011, p. 16).
So I’m suggesting that cultural democracy was side lined by central government arts policy, suppressed in favour of the far less democratic democratisation of culture. Undoubtedly, as David Looseley suggested, Lee ‘brought a change of direction… [b]ut the Arts Council’s position changed little’ (Looseley, 2012, p. 10). This is writ large in the rhetoric of Arts Council England today. Lee, perhaps, in her call for calling for ‘universal access’ to the arts in the 1960s ‘gently rocked the boat rather than setting it on a new course’, fortifying the idea of arts for everyone but allowing old practises to remain relatively unchallenged and unchanged (Lewis, 2014 , p. 87). I believe, as did Justin Lewis, that the roots of UK arts funding lie in ‘the paternalistic conservativism of the 1950s and 1960s’ from which was born an arts policy based upon paradoxical aesthetic values (now often termed ‘quality’) ‘that simultaneously promote elitism and universal accessibility’ (ibid.). I also contest that successive governments have, to varying degrees, maintained the principles enshrined within Lee’s white paper right up until today.
Jennie Lee’s call to make ‘Britain a gayer and more cultivated country’ is revealing. It is, perhaps, calling to make more people more cultivated in officially sponsored forms of official culture. Revealingly, Lee once said that ‘“if the world was made in my image it would be perfect”’, a position that Lawrence Black suggests she concealed ‘in favour of emphasising her “function is merely a permissive one”’ – she ‘played the populist’ (Black, 2006, p. 329). Critically, for Black, Lee’s defended ‘public spending on minority, elite pastimes’ by claiming that ‘improving access to them might have a cultivating trickle-down effect or therapeutic value, combating commercial, mass, American, popular culture’ (ibid. p. 330). She was clear that ‘“before we arrogantly say that any group of our citizens are not capable of appreciating the best in the arts, let us make absolutely certain that we have put the best within their reach”’ (ibid.). This was Lee mirroring the state’s wish to project a liberal tone - ‘permissive not prescriptive’ (ibid. p. 331). Her assertion that ‘“we should be trying to bring the best within reach of all; but at the same time. . . broadening of opportunities should not lead to a lowering of standards”’ was, for Black, a case of maintaining, as Keynes had previously, the ‘equation of culture, civilisation and “high” Western art’ (ibid. p. 331-332).
Following Black, I agree that ‘Lee did not contemplate Britain’s cultural life being moulded in the left’s own image’ and avoided ‘delivering the Arts as radical agency, in favour of enabling access to established providers, mindful of her non-prescriptive role’ (ibid. p. 334). 1960s Labour was, like Blair’s New Labour and, following Ed Miliband’s recent epiphany, current Labour, ‘a convinced advocate of traditional elite culture, liberal and inclusive in purpose’ – supporting exclusive classical arts, softly manipulating art as a welfare policy tool and developing its commercial possibilities (ibid. p. 335-336). I contend that Lee, like Keynes earlier, remain influential in today’s arts and cultural field. A field now rebranded and extended further towards businesses as ‘the Creative Industries’. Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, et al. saw this coming a very long time ago. For me then, Lee’s white paper was and still is a blueprint for the development of an official state cultural industry based upon the faux ‘democracy’ of the ideology of the democratisation of culture. This is not an anniversary to celebrate (unless you are part of today’s art world status quo). Instead, today marks fifty years of entrenched financial support for elitism and consumerism dressed down with occasional scraps of small-change for ragged grassroots arts and the 99% of artists struggling, as always, to make a living. We struggle for cultural democracy, to tear down the citadels brick by brick, for a truly equitable arts and cultural environment. They respond by building new temples and repair existing ones, by cutting funding to initiatives with potential to engage new audiences in (albeit often flawed) initiatives such as Creative People and Places, by telling everyone to BBC Get Creative! No money – just BBC Get Creative! I suggest we need to carefully consider the history of UK arts policy. To learn from it and make real changes, not just endless reports and new ‘contracts’ written by people with vested interests.
Belfiore, E., 2002. Art As a Means of Alleviating Social Exclusion: Does It Really Work? A Critique of Instrumental Cultural Policies and Social Impact Studies In the UK. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 8(1), pp. 91-106.
Black, L., 2006. 'Making Britain a Gayer and More Cultivated Country': Wilson, Lee and the Creative Industries in the 1960s. Contemporary British History, 20(3), pp. 323-342.
Davey, A., 2012. Great Art for Everyone: Is There a Point? You Bet!. [Online]Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/alan-davey/great-art-for-everyone-is_b_2231085.html [Accessed 11th February 2015].
Doeser, J., 2015. Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014, London: Kings College London.
Duffy, S., 2015. Jennie Lee White Paper Anniversary – 25th February 2015. [Online] Available at: https://stelladuffy.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/jennie-lee-white-paper-anniversary-25th-february-2015/ [Accessed 11th February 2015].
Efunshile, A., 2015. The Legacy of Jennie Lee. [Online] Available at: http://blog.artscouncil.org.uk/blog/arts-council-england-blog/legacy-jennie-lee [Accessed 25th February 2015].
Hope, C. S., 2011. Participating in the ‘Wrong’ Way? Practice Based Research into Cultural Democracy and the Commissioning of Art to Effect Social Change, London: Birkbeck, University of London.
Lewis, J., 2014 . Art, Culture and Enterprise: The Politics of Art and the Cultural Industries. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
Looseley, D., 2012. Notions of the popular in cultural policy: a comparative history of France and Britain. In: D. Looseley, ed. Policy and the Popular. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp. 5-19.
Doctor Faustus in a magic circle, Woodcut, 1648
I have always been perplexed when people talk of “quality”. It’s a strangely powerful word, given that it is essentially neutral. Colloquially, people say things like, “He’s a quality player,” meaning that the person has an excellent footballing attribute (or attributes): goal scoring, tackling, whatever. In science and philosophy, a quality is one element amongst a host of attributes (or qualities) that make up an entity – each quality can be good, bad, etc. In business, quality refers to fitness for purpose, defined by a company in relation to their chosen target market’s expectations; it is often qualified, internally, by judgments of what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. Clearly, the word “quality” has different interpretations in different situations but always requires qualification. So, when I hear the term used in discussions about art or artistic practice, especially when delivered without qualification, I always shrug.
Let’s be honest, quality in art usually means (and is usually qualified as meaning) “excellent” (or at least “good”). When used without qualification, quality still implies “good” or “excellent”, so why not be honest? Well, we live in times when “excellence” can sound elitist so, perhaps, it’s best not to say as much. We also use quality to refer to an aspect of a work of art in relation to its other qualities. There are qualities in art objects and art processes. And, of course, we’re well aware of the creeping managerialism that seeks to standardise arts practice with the aim of professionalising the arts (and artists). This is good for funders and policymakers and good for academia but not necessarily for artists. And what field of the arts is most prone to attempts at standardisation and professionalisation? Participatory arts. So, when I saw Quality in Participatory Art by ex-Helix Arts Chief Exec, Toby Lowe, on the #culturalvalue initiative website, I was intrigued (Lowe, 2015). This blog post attempts to critically respond to some of the perspectives raised in the essay in the form of a discourse analysis.
The #culturalvalue initiative curator Eleonora Belfiore introduces the essay by situating “quality” as “… a key criterion to establish where funding should be directed” (Belfiore, 2015). She immediately follows this by asking: “What is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality?” (ibid.). I think this seemingly naïve position masks her understanding of and role within the debate. Belfiore makes this clear by placing “quality” amongst the “fundamental questions of arts policy” – a place “where discussions of cultural value usually run aground” (ibid.). She then points out that, although widely referred to by “policy makers and funders”, they “shy away from defining” what constitutes “quality” in the arts (ibid.). I wonder how this allegedly ill-defined term can be considered, as Belfiore does, “a key concept in cultural policy” (ibid.)? Surely, policy should be built on firm foundations, not the slippery mudflats of an artistic estuary with many aesthetic tributaries? I contest that cultural policy makers know full-well what they mean by “quality”. They mean “excellent”, “good” or “high”. These are dangerous words in today’s publicly funded arts world; close to the supposedly bygone days of a “few but roses”. It is also worth mentioning that when quality is qualified as “excellent”, etc., it creates a dialectic: for every “excellent” there must be (at least one) “poor”; some “fit for purpose” and others “defective”; “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.
Nonetheless, Toby Lowe boldly attempts to make a case for “quality” in “participatory art” – another poorly defined term, as we shall perhaps see…
Lowe begins by stating that “quality” will inevitably be part of the cultural value debate “because we are bound to value the cultural experiences which we feel are good” (Lowe, 2015). It is immediately apparent that he equates “quality” with “good experiences” (ibid.). I wonder, however, if it is possible that “we” (itself a slippery term as we shall see later) and other audience members and participants might also find value in experiences we do not make us feel “good”? Are we really only seeking the “good” in arts and culture? Lowe then suggests “quality in any arts discipline” is often subjective (ibid.). I couldn’t agree more. Yet, once again, “quality” is portrayed as a single entity rather than a host of attributes. Furthermore, need these “qualities” always be subjective?
We then come to a definition of “participatory arts”. Lowe describes it as: “meaning the range of arts practice in which an artist (of any medium) facilitates a creative process with people” (ibid.). This is an exceptionally broad definition and, as a result, deeply problematic – vague. Owen Kelly warned in 1984 about the dangers of a “‘strategy of vagueness’” the left the community arts movement to be increasingly “led by the funding agencies” (Kelly, 1984, p. 23). Lowe, in his open definition, mimics the non-definition arrived at Harold Baldry’s The Report of the Community Arts Working Party, commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1974. The Baldry Report became “the foundation of the Art Council’s policy towards community arts” until at least 1984 (Kelly, 1984, p. 15) and, arguably, still remains pretty much in place today. It is here worth remembering that “community art” was reinvented in the 1990s as a “seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’” (Matarasso, 2013, p. 1). For François Matarasso, this transition signalled a move “from the politicised and collectivist action of the seventies towards the depoliticised, individual-focused arts programmes supported by public funds in Britain today” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 1-2). I could not agree more. Furthermore, “participatory arts”, as is clear from Lowe’s ambiguous (non-)classification, can be considered “neutral and descriptive” – little more than “a method applied to all other forms” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 6-7). I wonder, then, how “participatory arts” practice can, when so broadly “defined”, attempt to begin to describe work within the field as “quality” (meaning, as I have already mentioned, “excellent” or “good”)?
According to Lowe, “participatory arts is the artistic discipline that most frequently asks the question: ‘who gets to make art?’” (Lowe, op. cit.). Expanding on this assertion, Lowe explains that participatory arts:
speaks most regularly of the importance of equality in the cultural voice that people have: who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture? And if the people who are asking these questions aren’t also having conversations about what good work looks like, then the practice that is done in their name will soon become stale and uninteresting (ibid.).
I wonder who is speaking here. Who asks the questions: “Who gets to make art?”, “Who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture?” and “What does good work look like?” Who really gets to “speak” for and on behalf of the disciplinary field of participatory arts? Of course, artists ask these questions frequently but, in the context of cultural policy, they are, perhaps, questions posed by policymakers, academics and ‘arts leaders’ – now well-versed in drowning artists’ voices. What about the public and participants? I don’t believe “they” ask these questions very often (if at all). Also, I’m not entirely sure if “the practice that is done in their name” refers to participants, artists, policymakers, academics, arts leaders, or some, or all. Lowe’s ambiguous statement seems to relate to participatory arts practice doing art in the name of someone; perhaps ‘the people’? I contend that participatory arts are often “done to them” (participants, non-arts people) by us - well-meaning artists or instrumentally rational institutions (arts organisations, funders, policymakers, academics, etc.)
Lowe’s contention that “the massive inequality of art-making opportunity” must be addressed by improving access to the arts for “those who have least access to cultural capital” (ibid.) is commonly accepted by many in today’s field of arts and culture; certainly nothing new; virtually uncontested. Yet, positing that “those who have the least… deserve the best” (ibid.) is unusual. Is Lowe here suggesting that everyone deserves to “get to work with the best artists”, using “the best equipment and materials, because their stories matter” (ibid.), or just those most culturally disadvantaged? I support, of course, the need for cultural democracy within arts and culture. The field is still far too unequal – elitist. But should we really be striving for abstract notions such as “the best”? What is “the best”? Who defines it? I wonder if Lowe is unintentionally speaking for them, “the people”, in a rather paternalistic manner, on behalf of (some) of us.
In situating participatory arts as a practice often aligned to (or even, I contest, directed by) social policy, Lowe illustrates how “debate in this area has become infected with the notion that you can judge the quality of the work by the outcomes it produces” (ibid.). The capitulation of participatory arts into little more than art as a form social work has a long history and is deeply problematic. That “quality” is judged by outcomes when working towards goals driven by social policy is inevitable – a Faustian pact that will always end in fiery torment. Of course, there are other ways to define and measure (or experience and know) “quality” or more “the qualities” of a particular work of art – object or process – but that is, perhaps, worthy of another more thorough debate. It is certainly not particularly well-addressed in Lowe’s essay. Instead, he moves quickly to ask “what do we need to do put this right?” (ibid.). The answers, for Lowe, lie in understanding that it’s “critical reflection that makes our practice better” because it’s the “only way we can learn and improve” (ibid.).
Here, we begin to notice the discussion about “quality” morphing into the realm of “best practice” replete with peer reflection tools, “group crits”, open conversations. Nothing wrong with these techniques, but I wonder if Lowe’s approach is not veering here toward the dialogic. Participatory arts is a field fond of dialogic open conversation. Perhaps it is this type of approach that leads Lowe to lament: “Too much of previous discussion about what quality practice looks like in participatory arts has melted away…” (ibid.). His solution is to carefully document the “critical conversations”. But note that “best practice” has shifted again to become “quality practice”. Surely Lowe is talking about good (or best) quality practices here? Do practitioners need this? Well, it depends on whether we want or need more toolkits and better best practice guides. I’m not sure all (or most) artists do and, given the complex relational dynamics between artist and participants and between participants themselves that are so critical to the participatory arts process, whether it will be possible to ‘define’ anything other than a range of necessarily homogenous qualities. What would they then be used for and by whom?
Finally, Lowe summarises key aspects from his own report entitled Critical Conversations: Artists’ reflections on quality in participatory arts practice (Lowe, 2014). Starting with the “theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of participatory practice, which link to relational and dialogical aesthetics”, Lowe goes on to identify authenticity, “rigour”, “good participatory work”, “quality materials and equipment”, “professionalism and rigour”, “rigour, discipline, and professionalism”, amongst an extensive list of characteristics derived from a series of critical conversations with artists. For me, many of these words are reminiscent of management-speak that, whilst undoubtedly important elements of practice, lack any distinction or any form of critical analysis. For Lowe openness is important. He ends his essay by stating:
The more we are each able to be open about the complex judgements we make, and the uncertainties we feel about those judgements, the better all our work will be (ibid.).
I have big problems with “judgements”: a term laden with inferences of power – whether certain or uncertain. Nonetheless, Lowe seems to conclude by suggesting that openness will make participatory arts practice “better” – not “best” nor “excellent” nor “good” – not even “quality”. I conclude that Lowe’s essay actually describes a host of qualities that, whilst often unqualified or misleading qualified, offer insight into the vast array of attributes that affect the process and product of working in participatory arts. It is, however, important to note that what we see in this essay is participatory arts practice in all its anything goes, apolitical finery. There are other, more radical, more issue-based forms of practice in this field – for example, socially engaged art. Whilst socially engaged practice shares many characteristics (dare I say qualities) with participatory practice, the focus is much more sharp; the suspicions of institutions and policies far more acute. For me, this is a distinction I am exploring in my on going PhD research and in my practice. Rest assured, there will be no attempt to define “the quality of socially engaged art”!
 For more information about the Baldry Report, see Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984, pp. 15-20)
 For more about the transition from “community art” to “participatory arts”, see All in this together: The depoliticisation of community art in Britain, 1970-2011 (Matarasso, 2013)
 For detailed analysis of the alignment with art and social work, see, for example, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984)
What a week. A great week. A deeply challenging week. A week which saw me invited to Arts Council England’s HQ in Bloomsbury Street, London, thanks to CidaCo and Anamaria Wills in particular, to present a resilience lab to almost thirty people from arts organisations from Birmingham and South East London. I co-presented the afternoon with the lovely Sue Ball. We were encouraged to be challenging, provocative. I presented three provocations. They were:
- THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO
- COOPERATION AND COOPETITION: OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES
- SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS: SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES?
First, I briefly like to say what a lovely, super hi-tech place ACE national office is. Superb facilities. Coffee was a bit weak though…
Anamaria introduced me as a ‘loud, pick-a-fight-with-anyone Geordie’… She ended the afternoon claiming I was a Marxist (I’m not)…
Anyway, the three presentations are available online (by clicking the pics or links below) for comment, criticism, sharing, whatever… The first presentation features An Introduction to the Arts – a poem by the brilliant Luke Wright who kindly gave his permission and good wishes for my endeavours. Thanks Luke.
Please view them with notes (bottom left corner) enabled so you can read my provocations (most of my slides are just pictures).
THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO
COOPERATION AND COOPETITION: OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES
SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS: SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES?
This is a reblog of a post I wrote for #culturalvalue initiative which was first published on 2nd September 2014.
This was Eleonora Belfiore’s introduction…
Our regular contributor Stephen Pritchard has kindly agreed to review for The #culturalvalue initiative ‘Evaluation Survey of Artists’, a recent report by ArtWorks, one of the Paul Hamlyn’s Foundation’s Special Initiatives. The Foundation clearly has great ambitions for this project, whose web page states boldly: ‘This Special Initiative is an important intervention that will cause a paradigm shift in the way participatory work is viewed’. The report, and indeed Stephen’s post are therefore focused on the value that is attributed (or, as the case might be is not) to artistic practice that is participatory in nature and focused on fostering personal and social change, and – consequently – on the value that is attached to those artists who focus on this type of work. Because of the legacy of New Labour’s focus on the arts as a means to help deliver on socio-economic agendas, the question of the value of participatory art work with communities is often charged with accusations of ‘instrumentalism’, and the fear (that Stephen shares) is then that the artists might become hired hands charged with the delivery of soft social engineering and the kind of faux-radical type of community engagement that ensures that the fabric of society and the relations of power that govern it remain unchanged. Yet, the most interesting fact to emerge from the data in the ArtsWork report is, in my view, the sense that it is not just policy makers and funders who might fail to appreciate the value participatory arts (a complaint that is almost as old as this form of creative practice itself), but that other creative professionals in other corners of the cultural ecosystem might share in that lack of recognition and appreciation for participatory arts: struggles over cultural value, status and recognition of professional practice clearly are not limited to the arena of the competition for resources but extend to struggles over cultural authority and value amongst creative practitioners themselves.
This is my post…
Paul Hamlyn Foundation created the special initiative, ArtWorks: Developing Practice in Participatory Settings, in 2010 to ‘support the continuing professional development of artists’ (Paul Hamlyn Foundation, 2014). A ‘workforce scheme’, the project is funded and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Creativity Culture & Education (supported by Arts Council England) and the Cultural Leadership Programme (ibid.). In the words of PHF, this ‘important intervention’ is designed to ‘cause a paradigm shift in the way participatory work is viewed’, producing ‘enhanced quality and deeper understanding of what is required from artists in generating successful participatory projects’ (ibid). There are five ArtWorks Pathfinders, each with a differently focused action research project. The initiative ends in 2015. In June 2014, the foundation published ArtWorks Evaluation Survey of Artists, the first of several reports emanating from their extensive ‘conversation’ with and about participatory arts.
This post looks at how elements of the report relate to both my socially engaged practice as well as my current doctoral research project. I’ve followed the ArtWorks initiative with interest since it started. I attended their Changing the Conversation conference in 2013, thanks to a bursary from them. Several of their previous reports and provocations are referenced in my doctoral research literature review. I’m presenting, PechaKucha-style, at the ArtWorks North East Conference entitled, Pilots to Practice – learning approaches for artists working in participatory settings at BALTIC in September 2014. I took part in this research. Why mention all this? Well, I thought I should put my cards on the table. The cards say: Be critical; take part. Why am I critical? The field of social practice/ community arts/ participatory arts/ etc. is a broad church. Today, artists producing children’s workshops for major institutions form one node, radical activists another. There are many nodes in the field. For some people in the art world, much, if not all, of social practice is not art. I like tension and dissensus. Social practice offers plenty. This is good. I like DIY (or more precisely, Do It With Others); the commons; alternative forms of democratic society. Some elements of social practice produce these things and more in abundance. But much of the field is driven by instrumentalism, agendas designed to use ‘participatory art’ as a tool of soft state power and a means of obtaining increased government funding by ticking ‘engaging new audiences/ publics’ boxes – participatory art as a panacea for all life’s ills. This is neoliberal social change – not social justice. This is about maintaining, evening deepening, elitism and age-old institutional status quos within the arts – not a paradigm-shift.
Anyway, the report is detailed and interesting and has received a reasonable amount of attention in the arts media, so it’s worth digging into some of the discourse around the data. Having read the report, four questions sprung to mind:
How has the report been portrayed by PHF, the media and on social media?
What does it actually say about artists working in participatory settings?
What does this report mean for those working in the field of social practice?
The research was conducted over a short period early in 2014 and had a reasonably large core sample size of 868 respondents. The questionnaire was thorough and the data is undoubtedly well presented. I recommend that anyone interested in finding out more about the breadth of artists working in the field in the UK at present take a look at the report. It makes for fascinating reading which, for a practitioner working in the field, like me, feels very familiar. But what about my questions?
As I mentioned, there have been several responses to the report for other institutions. For example arts in criminal justice settings organisation, Arts Alliance, focused on the report’s findings that socially engaged artists often felt their work was undervalued and misunderstood within the arts, often received informal training and worked in ways that, and with commissioners who, regularly ignored standards and codes of practice. They pointed out that only one percent of socially engaged artists worked within criminal justice. Arts Professional’s headline was that socially engaged art is undervalued, accompanied by the rather strange (given the data) that ‘Artists urge employers and commissioners to invest more in their professional development’. Their report did not actually discuss the claim made in the strapline in particular detail, however. Social media, especially Twitter, responded (in general) very positively to the publication of ArtWorks’ report.
PHF in their July 2014 Briefing reported many of the headline statistics from their report and included a comment by ArtWorks Project Director, Dr Susanne Burns. In her comment, Burns pointed out that almost half of the survey respondents earned more than half their income from socially engaged practice, describing the practice as ‘a significant area of work generating major economic value for artists’. Much of her commentary centred on the need for better training, CPD, space for reflection, investment, etc. Her conclusion is worth quoting at length:
Work in participatory settings is valid practice in its own right. It constitutes a major element of many artists’ portfolios and affects the lives of many people across many areas of life. The status of the work must be raised. We must work together to ensure that its economic contribution, as well as its social value, is recognised and that the artists who undertake this work are supported to be the best they can be at all stages of their careers.
There is little to argue with here. Social practice is a major part of many artists’ creative activities and, increasingly, an essential way of earning a living whilst not getting paid anything/ enough when exhibiting their work. This is an area I believe that A-N’s #PayingArtists campaign needs to urgently address. The motives for some artists currently working within ‘participatory settings’ and the intentions behind instrumentalist projects such as Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places may, perhaps, be suspect on occasions – this is, however, another discussion for another day. The data quite clearly shows that socially engaged artists feel undervalued. This is unsurprising, given that the field is often belittled by many in the elite arts establishment. The data illustrates how artists feel that they are not understood by commissioners, nor given enough time to plan properly, nor listened to/ involved enough. For me, this relates to many personal experiences in which commissioners do not really know what you do, why you are doing it or what they really want to achieve from the commission. They are more interested in targets, outcomes, numbers, boxes ticked and nice photographs for their websites. This is not their fault. This is symptomatic of an evaluation-based culture seeking to provide instrumental results rather than participant experience.
The question of developing courses and degrees and career development opportunities for future socially engaged artists and CPD, standards of practice and formal qualifications for existing practitioners is, for me, something I’m rather sceptical of. I believe that constantly reflective and reflexive individual practice, married with ‘being the right type of person’ to work in the field, and a person-centred, organic, non-expert approach to learning from people is essential. I don’t believe this can be taught. Nonetheless, I fully understand why initiatives such as this and FE providers are keen to exploit the field as a potential source of new earnings and funding. Attempts to standardise or certify socially engaged artists or to produce ‘toolkits’ will, for me, always be likely to fail; always represent creeping instrumentalism.
So, my overall feeling about ArtWorks Evaluation Survey of Artists is that it contains excellent data that doesn’t indicate a great demand for the field to be formalised or institutionalised but rather stimulates further debate about examining and mapping the field in much greater detail and exposing the multitude of individual practices both working with and against the state in its insidious drive to promote ‘participation for all’. At present, socially engaged art is not recognised by Arts Council England or many other major institutions. It has a long history and is often inherently interdisciplinary – not ‘just art’. Many artists work in the field; many collectives, cooperatives, even constituted organisations, exist for socially engaged art; even (‘non-artist’) activists make socially engaged art. My feeling is that social practice should be recognised as a valid, varied and independent mode of art-making that should be recognised by ACE and others as separate from other art forms – not classified as part of a generic ‘Cross-art form’ category. This does not mean the field should be institutionalised or professionalised. Much of it already is…
This book offers a much more progressive approach to thinking about and learning about social practice…
Stephen Pritchard is an art historian, participatory arts maker, curator and writer with a background in critical literary studies. He has previously worked in textiles design and manufacture, international business management, quality systems design, and the contemporary arts. He describes himself as a participatory arts evangelist who’s made many a pact with many devil and that is what he likes – but this is probably not true. He’s toying with the idea of redefining himself as a gamekeeper-turned-poacher but this will more than likely come to nothing. His favourite number is zero.
Stephen is currently also executive director of participatory arts social enterprise dot to dot active arts CIC and is also just beginning the first year of his AHRC funded research doctorate entitled: Can participatory arts support sustainable social change? He is also working as a curator for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s Healing Arts initiative and is helping train recent graduates in curating exhibitions as part of a new initiative with Whistle Stop Arts. He has just finished a major participatory arts project in empty shops in Blyth, Northumberland called Old-New Curiosity Shop.
I attended a workshop at the University of Warwick on 9th July about Co-producing cultural policy. The day was very, very interesting and frustrating at times. I was guest blogger. I wrote this. It was originally published here: http://coculturalpolicy.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/cultural-value-and-economic-and-social.html
A morning of valuing artists, museums as co-producers of ‘social justice’ and cultural value as power, followed with an afternoon workshop about value and impact. The long trip to The University of Warwick was certainly action packed. A day of two halves. A room full of interested and actively probing researchers (and a Director of a National Portfolio Organisation). The day was all about policy: cultural value in the morning; humanities research after lunch. So what happened?
First up was Susan Jones, Director of a-n The Artists Information Company. Susan was, as usual, forthright and focused, delivering the hard facts about the #payingartists campaign; about ‘positive’ mission ‘delivery’; campaigning for fair pay for artists. She pointed out that ‘sometimes artists aren’t even mentioned in cultural policy’ anymore; pay had been reduced significantly in real terms since 1997; and nowadays ‘exhibition budgets exclude the notion of paying artists’. Why? Susan was clear to place responsibility on an increasing ‘shift in focus towards infrastructure’ – in cultural buildings and top-heavy management and administration teams. All great stuff! I firmly believe in this perspective too. But Susan’s emphasis was on exhibitions and galleries ‘because that’s where public funding is going in visual arts’. a-n’s new #payingartists video advertisement reinforced what, for me, seemed a rather narrow way of conceiving artistic practice today. Susan explained, however, that a-n are beginning to ‘look outside galleries – beyond exhibitions’, so, perhaps, there’s some hope of an expanded future scope for this undoubtedly ‘must address’ issue. I have a nagging concern about institutionalising artists’ rights and pay, but that’s for another day…
Director of National Museums Liverpool, David Fleming was incredibly passionate in advocating a more radical approach to museum programming than is often, perhaps, the case. He’s a firm supporter of national infrastructure buildings, ‘so long as the public get something out of it’. His approach is all about people, emotions, inter-generational activities, variety, and, ‘fighting for social justice’ – all with an authentic Liverpool voice (although he was quick to explain he’s from Leeds)! His show reel of ‘social justice’ programming left virtually no stone unturned: gender reconfiguration; queer; children’s cancer; dementia; well-being; Hillsborough; gun crime; slavery – all examples of successful ‘collusion with other bodies’ (NGOs, charities, etc.) because, apparently, ‘activists like working with the establishment’. David was blunt in his dislike of policy directed at numbers in the building, citing London museums as a prime example of government policy and funding decisions based upon ‘how many high spending tourists you can attract’. Nevertheless, his advocacy of the Museum Association’s Museums Change Lives agenda and tick-all-boxes social justice narrative left me feeling a little unsettled. Was this really radicalism or soft reinforcing of a form of, undoubtedly left-of-centre, neoliberal state instrumentalism?
Arts Council England’s Senior Policy and Research Manager, Andrew Mowlah, always had an unenviable task. The mood was set. He rehearsed many of the Arts Council’s new ‘tablets of stone’: the need to ‘reflect instrumental and intrinsic values’; fitting ‘the aesthetic… into cultural policy’; ‘making the best possible case for investment in arts and culture’; ‘metrics’; the ‘economic benefits of the UK culture industry’; ‘the wider benefits of the arts’ (beyond economics and tourism, perhaps?); etc., etc. He was steadfast in his defence of the need to ‘evidence’ culture to persuade government to continue to fund arts and culture, concluding that we shouldn’t ‘discount the value of data and evidence’. Many in the audience wondered whether anyone in government really valued the evidence anyway, no matter what its form. For me, any mention of ‘culture industry’ makes me go all Adorno…
Eleonora Belfiore was last in the morning session. Critical antithesis of Arts Council England’s cultural policy, she breezed through a cutting overview of current cultural value policy. Her assertion that the many who see cultural value as a way of determining ‘real value’ are being ‘over simplistic’ was an antidote to the positivist reductionism abounding in much of social sciences and cultural policy right now. Cultural value, like all things, is socially constructed, political, transient, and never neutral – power is always orchestrating. Ele’s example of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding… clearly demonstrated how economics and ‘fun’ programming has very dark undertones: it humiliates an already oppressed ethnic group, redoubling stereotypes whilst making a great deal of money for the media. It is, as Ele explained, the role of academia and research (and, perhaps, the arts and others) to ‘probe the underbelly of cultural value policy’.
I’m over my word count already, so let’s just summarise an excellent afternoon’s research workshop as follows: ‘Impact is not evil’ but ‘how do you engage someone like James Dyson?’ Solid ‘REF Gold’!
This link takes you to a really interesting piece by the BBC from 2012 exploring how Occupy use arts as a powerful means of producing counter-hegemonic discourse with big public impact. Features Illuminator 99%.
I have been a long-time admirer of the amazingly simple, incredibly expressive and exceptionally impactful work of activist arts movement Illuminator 99%. Their work epitomises, for me, the spirit of Occupy and other non-hierarchical counter-hegemonic movements. This video is the first of two I wish to post to (hopefully) stimulate some discussion around arts, activism and social justice.
This is the fifth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? Previous posts are below. This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there. It will be refined. Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon. Please feel free to comment and criticise…
The academic discourse surrounding how and, indeed, if the arts might influence social change and the ‘intrinsic’ versus ‘instrumental’ questions (outlined in previous posts), cross into policy discussions about culture and value that perhaps shift the focus even further from the practice of socially engaged art and, for that matter, the arts in general. This section begins by returning to Matarasso’s later work as an illustration of how present policy discussions centre on the concept of ‘cultural value’ rather than ‘social impact’ or ‘social change’.
In 2012, Matarasso wrote On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’ in response to the burgeoning ‘cultural value debate’. He is critical, in his essay, about ‘value’ being perceived as ‘good’ even though ‘human beings do not agree on what is good’ and, if there is no definition of good, potential value cannot be measured (Matarasso, 2012). This ‘slipperiness’ about cultural value, for Matarasso, creates opportunities for tacit positions to go uncontested. Differing in emphasis from his position in Use or Ornament?, Matarasso extols arts and culture as ‘necessarily experiential’, existing ‘only in the intertwined experience of creator (artist, performer, author, maker) and re-creator (audiences, readers, viewers and listeners)’ (Matarasso, 2012). He believes that the ambiguity of the arts means it cannot be considered to have any ‘universal character, method, purpose, meaning or even existence’ and therefore ‘no universal value (good), unless one associates it with a universal deity’; cultural value cannot therefore ‘be measured against a universal scale’ nor can the effects of culture ‘be tested or replicated, except in certain limited terms’ (Matarasso, 2012). In this essay, Matarasso is stating a direct opposition to a policy position he was once demonised for supporting, if not creating: no longer the champion of instrumentalism; now a firm believer in art’s intrinsic nature.
The ‘cultural value debate’ has continued developing apace since Matarasso wrote the aforementioned essay. There are new initiatives appearing in the UK almost every other month at present. A brief overview of the stated aims and objectives of the key current initiatives around cultural value is therefore essential to understand how socially engaged art relates to this debate and its broader future policy implications.
The AHRC Cultural Value Project is clear in adopting a structural approach to ‘experience’, stating that it:
‘seeks to establish a framework that will advance the way in which we talk about the value of cultural engagement and the methods by which we evaluate that value. The first part of the framework will be an examination of the cultural experience itself and its impact on individuals and its benefit to society. The Project will take as its starting point the different forms of cultural experience, such as, for instance, the aesthetic and cognitive dimensions of our cultural encounters… In giving priority to the cultural experience itself, the Cultural Value Project will take the lead in developing a rigorous approach to what many see as the most important aspect of art and culture’ (AHRC, 2013).
The #culturalvalue Initiative, created by Belfiore, celebrates the new opportunities in this field and wishes to broaden the debate beyond economics. It states that:
‘the very existence of a set of cultural policies is predicated on the notion of cultural value, and the belief in the social importance of its preservation and nurturing… Yet, although how to articulate value is a central concern for cultural organisations in receipt of public funding… the sector finds it difficult to have a serious and honest discussion on the issue. As a result… the public debate on the value of the arts and culture has been intellectually colonised by the discipline of economics, at the expense of the humanities and social sciences’ (Belfiore, 2013).
The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value is led by many senior figures from across arts and culture as well as economics, public policy, sociology, etc. It has identified four trends to investigate and report upon in coming years: Investing; Valuing; Education; and International Trends. The overarching mission is to:
‘explore the “DNA” of the cultural landscape in England from both sector and public perspectives and imagine how it might be better connected and understood using the metaphor of an ecosystem… What kinds of investment do we need to ensure the future of culture and how can we work to ensure that all forms of culture are inclusive and accessible for all?’ (UoW, 2013)
Economics is central to most discussions about cultural value. UNESCO recently reported that the culture sector creates two types of impact: non-economic and economic; the key motive for renewed state intervention in the sector is apparent in UNESCO’s claim that:
‘[t]he growing interest in cultural industries and their rapid acceptance as a fairly general model for addressing development problems at the economic and political level, have contributed that cultural industries become a key component in the formulation of economic policy and strategic development planning.’ (UNESCO b, 2012, p. 7)
Alongside UNESCO’s research into measuring the economic benefits of arts and culture sits Measuring cultural participation (2012). It aims to develop ‘a conceptual foundation and a common understanding of culture that will assist the measurement of a wide range of cultural expressions – irrespective of any particular economic and/or social mode of production’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 8); it points to the ‘scientific measurement scale, the psychological general wellbeing index’ as a long-existing tool for measuring positive impacts of arts participation, irrespective of ‘artistic competence’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 9). But surely these are big claims to make, especially as the PGWBI is a generic psychological tool for measuring perceived wellbeing that does not measure any specific responses to either cultural activity or participation. Indeed, UNESCO go on to conclude that any attempt at even local standardisation will be difficult ‘[g]iven that most active participation tends to happen in a dispersed and uncoordinated way through small, often predominantly social, organizations that are neither recognised nor funded by governments as sustainable “institutions”’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 9). Is this international recognition that participation is independent and, if so, a territory to be colonised by new forms of instrumentalism? Certainly, the report’s authors identify ‘a disjuncture between three coexisting but fundamentally different sets of values – intrinsic, instrumental and institutional’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 10) and are perplexed by linguistic problems not just between different international interpretations of ‘participation’ but also between its active and passive forms of meaning (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 19).
Measuring cultural participation makes clear that UNESCO are not interested in artistic quality nor ‘[o]pposed concepts and cultural hierarchies (active/passive, high/low, professional/amateur)’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 20). The report is also clear that participation can only be understood ‘in a meaningful, wider context’ by investigating ‘a range of issues which can be understood only by using qualitative methods’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 49). The report concludes that no single ‘standard’ model will be able to describe ‘[t]he inter-relationships between cultural participation, participation as a whole, social inclusion and civil society’; attempts to measure participation in cultural activities must therefore use local ‘lenses and tools’ based upon ‘[s]cientific findings’ presented ‘in the best and widest possible way to encourage effective policies’ (UNESCO a, 2012, pp. 73-74).
A crisis of the legitimacy of cultural value was identified back in 2006 by Holden. He argued this could only be addressed by creating a democratic consensus through better and broader arguments about the value of culture that politicians could understand and support (Holden, 2006, p. 9). He explained that cultural value has three forms - ‘intrinsic value, instrumental value and institutional value’ – and is ‘created and “consumed”’ in ‘a triangular relationship between cultural professionals, politicians, policy-makers and the public’ (Holden, 2006, p. 10). The solution lay, for Holden, in creating ‘a different alignment between culture, politics and the public’ that nurtures ‘greater legitimacy directly with citizens’ (Holden, 2006, p. 10). But it would appear that, since then, cultural policy and cultural value have, in fact, moved further away from people outside a very narrow sphere of the arts, into a highly professionalised world of ‘cultural leaders’ and ‘public policy-makers’.
O’Brien’s 2010 report to the DCMS, Measuring the value of culture, warned that ‘the cultural sector will need to use the tools and concepts of economics to fully state their benefits in the prevailing language of policy appraisal and evaluation’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 4). His report argues for increased state instrumentalism as well as an adoption of economic measures delivered ‘using the language of public policy and cultural value’ because only can ‘funding decisions… be made that are acceptable to both central government and the cultural sector’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 5). Whilst acknowledging the value of narratives as useful in articulating cultural value, O’Brien warns they ‘fail to represent the benefits of culture in a manner that is commensurable with other calls on the public purse’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 9). His stringent solution: find a way of fitting ‘the unique aspects of culture, outside of the social and economic impacts, into the economic language of the welfare economic paradigm suggested by the guidance in Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the Green Book’ (O'Brien, 2010, pp. 16-17). He concludes by requesting that the DCMS ‘rectify this issue by producing detailed guidance on measuring cultural value with stated preference techniques, making it clear that this will be the standard approach to valuation for central government’s consideration of policy for the cultural sector’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 48). The voice of public policy abounds.
Public arts policy-maker and funder, Arts Council England (ACE), were surprisingly late in joining the ‘cultural policy debate’, publishing The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society, in April 2014. Their report has been much maligned since publication because of its drive to increase instrumentalism and its poorly conducted research. ACE make their position clear from the start, describing the intrinsic value of arts and culture as being ‘in part, a philosophical assertion that can’t be measured in numbers’, whilst stating that ‘[q]uantifying the [instrumental] benefits and expressing them in terms of facts and figures that can evidence [their] contribution… is something that arts and culture organisations will always have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 4). They reinforce their drive towards measuring instrumental values by stating:
'When we talk about the value of arts and culture, we should always start with the intrinsic – how arts and culture illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world… But while we do not cherish arts and culture because of the impact on our social wellbeing and cohesion, our physical and mental health, our education system, our national status and our economy, they do confer these benefits and need to show how important this is… on different scales – on individual, communal and national levels – so that we can raise awareness among the public, across the cultural, educational and political sectors, and among those who influence investment in both the public and private sectors… to help people think of our arts and culture for what they are: a strategic national resource… [and] to see where the impact of our work is felt, and where we don’t yet reach’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 4).
The remainder of the report, which should perhaps be titled The Value of State Support for the Arts, gives very little in terms of ‘evidence’ of instrumental measures. Beginning with five ways in which arts and culture might lead be economically beneficial - ‘attracting visitors; creating jobs and developing skills; attracting and retaining businesses revitalising places; and developing talent’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7) – the examples descend into exceptionally tenuous realms. The published examples directly relating to participation in the arts and social change include statements such as:
'Those who had attended a cultural place or event in the previous 12 months were almost 60 percent more likely to report good health compared to those who had not, and theatre goers were 25 percent more likely to report good health’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7).
'People value being in the audience to the arts at about £2,000 per person per year and participating at £1,500 per person. The value of participating in sports is about £1,500 per year.’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7)
'High-school students who engage in the arts at school are twice as likely to volunteer… and 20 percent more likely to vote as young adults… Employability of students who study arts subjects is higher and they are more likely to stay in employment… There is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger.’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 8)
'Schools that integrate arts across the curriculum in the US have shown consistently higher reading and mathematics scores compared with similar schools that do not… Participation in structured arts activities increases cognitive abilities… Students from low income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree…’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 8)
So, apparently, going to ‘a cultural place or event’ makes you healthier; it is more valuable to watch a cultural event than participate creatively or take part in sport; art at ‘high-school’ makes young people really ‘good’ all-round citizens; integrated art teaching improves literacy and numeracy; structured art arts improves (structured) thinking; and, amazingly, by participating in school arts, poor students are much more likely to gain a degree (presumably in any subject). Is this a (re)turn to state instrumentalism in the mode of Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? It would certainly appear so with ACE themselves concluding that:
'We know that arts and culture play an important role in promoting social and economic goals through local regeneration, attracting tourists, the development of talent and innovation, improving health and wellbeing, and delivering essential services. These benefits are “instrumental” because art and culture can be a means to achieve ends beyond the immediate intrinsic experience and value of the art itself’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 11).
The report does, however, warn that there is little evidence to support claims that ‘preventative interventions which use arts and culture to reduce the need for other public services’ do not, in fact, ‘demonstrate the associated reduction in public spending’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 23).
This review also briefly considers the role of art in regenerating public spaces as part of public policy. The Art of Regeneration (1996), written several authors including the ubiquitous Matarasso, identified the increasing role of the arts in urban regeneration which, whilst initially mainly focused upon expensive, large-scale capital works, was becoming increasing interested in ’participatory arts programmes which are low-cost, flexible and responsive to local needs’ (Landry, et al., 1996, p. i). This was a clear policy change – ‘a shift in emphasis in regeneration strategies towards seeing local people as the principal asset through which renewal can be achieved’ with arts activities becoming ‘effective routes to a wide range of social policy objectives’ (Landry, et al., 1996, p. i). Here, perhaps, lies the seeds of Use or Ornament? This participatory approach to regeneration led to a movement, particularly strong in the US, and now growing in the UK, known as ‘creative placemaking’, which the NEA defines as:
‘In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired’ (Nicodemus, 2012).
Bedoya is more cautious about the motives behind creative placemaking. His essay, Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-Belonging (2012), reminds practitioners to ensure they apply an authenticity and ‘ethos of belonging’ when working in this area to ensure residents ‘achieve strength and prosperity through equity and civility’ (Bedoya, 2012). Bedoya warns against a ‘build it and they will come’ culture based upon speculative economics as ‘suffocating, unethical, and [supportive of] a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a “place”’ (Bedoya, 2012). He is at pains that creative placemaking must not become ‘a development strategy but… a series of actions that build spatial justice, healthy communities and sites of imaginations’ (Bedoya, 2012). Clearly then, creative placemaking, with its routes in policies aligned with regeneration and participation, may well always be a form of ‘instrumentalism-lite’ at best; a means of gentrification and state interventionism at worst.
Belfiore’s 2012 essay, “Defensive instrumentalism”, offers a thoughtful evaluation of the question of instrumentalism as cultural policy. She argues for a more nuanced, ‘philosophical approach to the notions of “impact”, “instrumentalism”, and the underlying assumption that the arts can be used as a tool to effect real transformation on individuals’ sense of self, place, belonging, morality, etc., and ultimately on communities and society’; describing UK cultural policy as being, for more than a century, dominated by increasingly normative forms of institutionalisation now ‘embedded within powerful cultural and educational organisations, national curricula and public sensibility’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 104). The result, contends Belfiore, is the present UK arts funding system in which ‘the recipients of the largest grants, which account for a very substantial portion of the available funding, have changed little since Keynes, and:
‘the exquisitely ideological question of making the (political) case for the arts has been translated in the rather more technical (and therefore apparently neutral) issue of arts impact assessment, with the focus firmly on the methodological problems of evaluation rather than on thorny questions of cultural value, and the political problem of how to address the as of yet unresolved issue of widening access and participation to the publicly supported arts’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 107).
Linking the current cultural policy situation with that under New Labour, Belfiore unveils a ‘new guise of economic instrumentalism’ – a form of ‘“defensive instrumentalism” that leaves no room for a positive and constructive vision’ (Belfiore, 2012, pp. 108-109). Perhaps, then, debates about cultural value and instrumentalism reflect the complete 'commodification of public policy’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 110). Yet none of these debates and policies ever mention socially engaged arts practice; participation is mentioned fleetingly and often incoherently.
This is the fourth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my ongoing PhD research around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? The other posts are below. Please feel free to comment and criticise…
Whether art, or any other activity for that matter, can ever change contemporary society, has been and remains a source of much discussion. Whilst the arts perspective has been reviewed previously, other fields such as sociology, politics, philosophy, etc. have increasingly (perhaps because of state interventionism discussed previously) become interested in discussing this question from an arguably more academic perspective. This section reviews some of the key works about art and social change, starting with a deeply critical essay, Art and Social Change (2005).
In Art and Social Change, Dillemuth et al. criticise many contemporary cultural and education institutions as being ‘nothing more than legal and administrative organs of the dominant system’; by taking part in these activities, we ‘internalise their values, transmit their ideologies and act as their audience/public/social body’ (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 378). The socially accepted façade of these institutions purports to represent our society but hides the ‘dysfunctional relics of the bourgeois project’, encouraged by neoliberalism to ‘become even more obscure, more unreliable and more exclusive’; indivisible from the state (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 378). The authors contest that the cultural and education sectors have betrayed their responsibilities to society that once claimed to be based upon ‘transparency, accountability, equality and open participation’ in favour of survival by submission to the state (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 379). Their solution is self-organisation; their manifesto culminating in a call for a fluidly flexible, agile ‘non-identity’ that is ‘[m]utually reinforcing, self-valorising, self-empowering, self-historicising and, as a result, not compatible with fixed institutional structures’ (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, pp. 380-381). This is, perhaps, social change, radically reimagined.
When Wolff categorically states that ‘[a]rt is a social product’ and that ‘it is not useful to think of artistic work as essentially different from other kinds of work’ (Wolff, 1993, pp. 1-2), she dissolves art into life. She confidently claims that ‘the sociological study of the arts has done a good job in exposing many of the extra-aesthetic elements involved in aesthetic judgement – the values of class, or the influence of political or moral ideas, for example’ (Wolff, 1993, p. 7); that the artist has never ‘worked in isolation from social and political constraints of a direct or indirect kind’ (Wolff, 1993, p. 27). But surely, this is an overtly sociological position which, as is typical of much of this type of research, avoids discussing many (or any) examples of specific artistic practice in relation to presented hypotheses. Adopting a similar tenet, Belfiore and Bennett, in The Social Impact of the Arts (2008), focus on developing the notion of instrumentalism as being at least 2,500 years old; not a contemporary phenomenon driven by the need to secure arts funding from the state (Belfiore & Bennett, 2008, p. 194). Their historical review concludes that:
‘the “negative tradition” – that is, the view persisting over time that the arts have a negative influence on individuals and society as a whole – resounds as strongly as the “positive tradition”, which maintains that the arts are “good for you” and which can be seen as predominant in today’s debates over cultural and educational policy’ (Belfiore & Bennett, 2008, p. 191).
This sociological approach to appraising contemporary arts (and socially engaged) practice as being part of a long continuum is useful on the one hand, narrowly reductive on the other. Many works around cultural regeneration and place take a similarly neutral stance. For example, Erasing the Traces, Tracing Erasures portrays the cultural regeneration of Newcastle/Gateshead as a project which ‘by attempting to re-make the region’s image and, simultaneously, key into networks of mobile capital by courting the tourist market and disposable income of locals’ helped create a new arts landscape in which buildings like The Sage ‘simultaneously erase and evoke, eradicate and re-inscribe notions of cultural memory and belonging as it pertains to contemporary cities’ (Thompson, 2010, p. 56). Such viewpoints stem from Bourriaud’s oft criticised theory of relational aesthetics which disparages radical ‘[s]ocial utopias and revolutionary hopes’ and ‘everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies’ because any position ‘that is “directly” critical of society is futile, if based on the illusion of a marginality that is nowadays impossible, not to say regressive’ (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 31).
Neutralising sociological perspectives such as those of Wolff, Belfiore and Bennett, Thompson, Bourriaud, et al. stand in stark contrast to the critical postmodernist perspective of ‘a postmodernism of resistance, including resistance to that easy postmodernism of the “anything goes” variety’ (Huyssen, 1998 , p. 336). Huyssen’s call to ‘abandon that dead-end dichotomy of politics and aesthetics which for too long has dominated accounts of modernism, including the aestheticist trend within poststructuralism’ clearly aims to increase ‘the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art’ (Huyssen, 1998 , pp. 336-337). This position perhaps relates more to contemporary discussions about socially engaged art by practitioners than by many sociologists; offering alternative ways of envisioning art and social change rather than historicising it. It also links with critical theory (discussed in more detail in a forthcoming post.)
The Gifts of the Muse (2004) is a classic report about funding the arts as a means of ‘serving broad social and economic goals’ alongside an increased emphasis on the need for institutions to demonstrate the value of the arts; discussing potential instrumental and intrinsic benefits; recognising that intrinsic values are often neglected in favour of outputs and goals, even though they have a ‘central role… in generating all benefits deriving from the arts’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, pp. xi-xii). McCarthy et al. make a coherent case that the arts are not valued by audiences and participants for their instrumental benefits but because they create meaning, pleasure and satisfaction which can lead indirectly to broader individual and community benefits (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. xv). Sustained access to and involvement is essential to the report’s findings, as are three stages of access to the arts: ‘gateway experiences’ which are ‘most conducive to future arts involvement if they happen when people are young (that is, of school age, particularly pre-teen)’; ‘fully engaging’, high quality follow-on experiences that help ‘change individual tastes and enrich subsequent arts experience’; and ‘the intrinsic worth of the arts experience’ described as vital for long-term involvement in the arts (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. xvii). The report’s authors contrast this perspective with the aforementioned list of instrumental benefits purported to ‘be an antidote to myriad social problems’, economically important, etc., critiquing the arts for using ‘the language of the social sciences and the broader policy debate’ as justification for their continued existence (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 1).
In fact, McCarthy et al. are deeply scathing about evidence-based research on instrumental benefits, expanded beyond economics to include ‘cognitive, attitudinal and behavioral, and health benefits at the individual level, and social and economic benefits at the community level’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 7), noting that this research does not explain how participation in the arts generates these supposed benefits, nor does it ‘specify the circumstances in which benefits accrue, the populations most likely to benefit in such circumstances, and the level of arts involvement needed to generate benefits’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 21). They go on to suggest that methodological problems mean that many of the claims ‘about the arts’ instrumental benefits are unsubstantiated’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 33). In contrast, the authors explain that the intrinsic effects of the arts cannot be investigated using ‘the more objective view of the social scientist’ - a politically-driven ‘social science model that focuses on measurable outcomes’; the intangibility of intrinsic benefits being difficult (if not almost impossible) to accurately define (McCarthy, et al., 2004, pp. 37-38). The report also suggests that the modernist notions of aesthetics and ‘art for art’s sake’ has made art seem, to many people, ‘remote, esoteric, and removed from life’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 38).
The Gifts of the Muse, also places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of introducing children to arts and other creative activities early in their lives (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 54); the authors contend that ‘most of the claimed learning and behavioral benefits are generated by arts experiences in schools’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 71). The importance of creative experiences to children is a point discussed further later in this chapter in relation to the works of D.W. Winnicott.
So is social change achievable, measurably or even desirable? Are the arts any better equipped than other fields to support social change? Who drives change anyway? Is social change always a concept of the state – driven by instrumentalism? Is social justice different, more democratic? More to follow…
There is a crucial debate that is often still referred to when questions of art and social change arise. It is essentially a disagreement about the potentialities of participatory art as a mode of effecting social change; predominantly a discussion about policy and methodology – two questions that are at the heart of much of the writing about socially engaged art and its practice.
Matarasso published Use or Ornament? in 1997 for New Labour think-tank Comedia. It quickly became the cornerstone of New Labour’s drive to increase the status of arts and culture in the UK; it made impressive claims about the many possible forms of social impact that participation in arts and cultural activities could achieve. The report seemed to present a compelling case to many policy-makers that participatory arts might be a panacea for all ills by claiming, very positively, that:
‘Participation in the arts does bring benefits to individuals and communities. On a personal level these touch people’s confidence, creative and transferable skills and human growth, as well as their social lives through friendships, involvement in the community and enjoyment. Individual benefits translate into wider social impact by building the confidence of minority and marginalised groups, promoting contact and contributing to social cohesion. New skills and confidence can be empowering as community groups become more (and more equitably) involved in local affairs. Arts projects can strengthen people’s commitment to places and their engagement in tackling problems, especially in the context of urban regeneration. They encourage and provide mechanisms for creative approaches to development and problem solving, and offer opportunities for communities and institutions to take risks in a positive way. They have the capacity to contribute to health and social support of vulnerable people, and to education’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. 74).
The report continued by extending the claims for the efficacy of participatory art in achieving positive ‘social outcomes’ because it is different from and superior to other forms of arts experiences (Matarasso, 1997, pp. 74-79). Matarasso warned that projects must be ‘well-conceived and managed’ to achieve positive social impact or they could otherwise produce ‘negative outcomes’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. 75). The report clearly suggested to New Labour policy-makers that the project of ‘social inclusion’ could be furthered by ‘a marginal repositioning of social policy priorities’ together with ‘a review of the cultural dimension of social policy by local authorities and other major agencies’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. 79). It also provocatively suggested that art purporting to either conjure ‘demons of social engineering and Soviet Realism’ or romantic notions of the ‘neurasthenic anti-hero, whose artistic sensibility requires protection from the pollution of modern life’, were positions ‘used by people who should know better to frighten us into our places’ (Matarasso, 1997, pp. 80-81).
Although frequently criticised, the most critical response to Use or Ornament? by Paola Merli was not published until seven years later. Her approach focused on criticising Matarasso’s research as flawed, perhaps because of his ‘strong desire to be relevant and useful to the policy process and to contribute to decision-making’ (Merli, 2004, p. 17). To Merli, the research data did not support Matarasso’s conclusions reached. She claimed that:
‘Many of the 50 hypotheses are expressed as relationship between abstract concepts which are not observable, nor measurable. For example: participation in the arts "can give people influence over how they are seen by others", or "can help validate the contribution of a whole community", or "can help people extend control over their own lives", or "can help community groups raise their vision beyond the immediate”’ (Merli, 2004, p. 17).
Furthermore, Merli criticised Matarasso’s questionnaire because it was not systematic, nor formulated to test his hypotheses, nor did it consider or attempt to control social desirability bias; she also attacked him for failing to adequately explore the likely duration of the results obtained or the social groups his participants belonged to (Merli, 2004, pp. 17-18). But it was not just Matarasso’s highly suspect collection and interpretation of data that Merli found wanting, she also questioned his interpretation of social change, claiming that he, along with other policy-makers and intellectuals, shared ‘a particular philosophical attitude towards society’; a ‘benevolent’ vision of ‘"new missionaries", who play guitar with marginalised youth, the disabled and the unemployed, aiming at mitigating the perception which they have of their own exclusion’ (Merli, 2004, p. 18). Contrasting this ‘revival’ of participation with the community arts movement, Merli found that, whereas ‘the original phenomenon was a spontaneous movement… directed to the expression of conflicts’ and devoted to achieving ‘emancipation and liberation from any form of social control… by means of artistic creativity’, Matarasso’s vision was a form of soft social control prescribed by the rich to anesthetise the poor (Merli, 2004, pp. 19-20).
Merli’s proposed alternative to the prescriptive Use or Ornament? was itself, however, rather limp in its attempt to suggest areas for future research – many of which are still relatively unexplored by many socially engaged practitioners and projects to this day. Merli suggested that social impact assessment (an approach very much focused upon investigating the social effects of public policy), and interdisciplinary research (including the fields of psychology and sociology), could be useful methods of evaluating participatory art activities because they recognised the specificity of each intervention and offered a firm theoretical basis for future research in the field, as well as offering evidence about the effects creativity and perception on participants (Merli, 2004, p. 20). In Vygotsky and Sloboda, however, Merli chose to narrowly focus upon creativity based on contested social and cognitive psychological approaches with little to link them to creativity or the arts. She also described Bourdieu’s treatise on art as an elitist tool that reinforces social difference, Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception (1968), as ‘a grounding theory for interesting research on the social impact of the arts’ (Merli, 2004, pp. 20-21). Nonetheless, Merli’s suggestion to utilise detailed interviews rather than questionnaires because they can help the researcher ‘understand - and not simply to measure - the ideas and the feelings of the interviewee’ (Merli, 2004, p. 21) is certainly of relevance to methods used in this research.
Participatory art is a growing field. As a practice, it adopts numerous forms and crosses many boundaries. Participatory art is often, but not always, implicated in narratives surrounding personal and social change, either directly through public policy, or indirectly through the statements of individual socially engaged artists. Socially engaged art interventions are often short-term and limited in scope and scale. This leads to questions about whether such approaches should or can be sustained.
The cross-disciplinary nature of socially engaged art and the individual experiences of participants and artists means that the field is hotly debated by practitioners, policy-makers, critics and academics. Research into the practice necessarily involves traversing a myriad of complementary and conflicting areas and perspectives. Questions revolve around aesthetics, instrumentalism, independence, community, place-making, economics, politics, policy, cultural value, evaluating and evidencing impact, outcomes for participants and society, individual experience, integration and sustainability. It is also important to consider how socially engaged art interfaces with and is influenced by other disciplines such as sociology, pedagogy, education, health and wellbeing, psychology, regeneration, development, and ethnography. This research also considers how critical theory, participatory action research, postdevelopment theory and notions of the carnivalesque might be fruitful routes to new insight about the nature of socially engaged art and its potential for alternative forms of meaningful individual and social change.
This literature review therefore attempts to survey key texts from across the many areas described above. It begins by taking the oft cited Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts (Matarasso, 1997) as a starting point then develops from there across subsections covering: Socially engaged art – an ‘arts’ perspective; Art as Social change; Cultural policy; What might sustainable arts practice look like?; and Do other disciplines influence social engaged art practice?
I will serialise some of my thoughts arising from my literary research in regular blog posts covering the different aspects mentioned above. Comments and criticism are very welcome.
A repetitive, cyclical dance around a plant upon which mulberries don’t really grow whilst mimicking of everyday actions and chanting ‘This is the way...’ and a response to a blog post on the #culturalvalue initiative website by Daniel Allington entitled Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective.
Walter Crane, Here we go round the mulberry bush, colour printed wood engraving, 1878
The art business, a trade in things that have no price, belongs to the class of practices in which the logic of the pre-capitalist economy lives on… These practices, functioning as practical negations, can only work by pretending not to be doing what they are doing. Defying ordinary logic, they lend themselves to two opposed readings, both equally false, which each undo their essential duality and duplicity by reducing them either to the disavowal or to what is disavowed - to disinterestedness or self-interest.
Who said Bourdieu’s cultural capital and network theory don’t mix? Daniel Allington explains in this post that he finds this unlikely coupling ‘a useful way of studying cultural value from a perspective informed by Bourdieu’. This is not all, he begins by stating that ‘Art for art’s sake… means understanding the value of culture as intrinsically cultural.’ Bourdieu, art for art’s sake, and many other words and assumptions in Allington’s essay all sit uneasily with my perspectives of arts and culture (based as they are upon critical theory and my own practise as part of the arts ‘field’), as indeed does the rather insidious term ‘cultural value’.
For me, the antiquated and elitist concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ is circular – self-referential – intrinsic. So too, surely, is the conceptualisation of ‘the value of culture’ as ‘intrinsically cultural’. What is the value of culture? Essentially cultural. What are intrinsically cultural beliefs? Cultural value. Here we go round… For Allington, the answer to this conundrum may lie in Bourdieu’s suggestion that ‘cultural value is a form of belief’; a belief in ‘magical’ and fetishised objects of art and literature that believers consider magical. Citing The Emperor’s New Clothes, ‘It isn’t’, according to Allington, ‘that there are people who have laughingly duped the rest of society into believing in something they know very well not to be real.’ Rather, it is about ‘symbolic capital’ in which ‘[t]he making of art for art’s sake is… not about satisfying an audience of consumers, but about earning the esteem of fellow producers, who are also competitors for one another’s esteem.’ Allington attempts to legitimise this statement by referencing Bourdieu’s The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods, selecting the following quote: ‘“the conviction that good and bad painting exist” is both “the stakes and the motor without which [the field of painting] could not function’”.
So what’s the problem here? Well, it would seem to me and my somewhat limited knowledge of Bourdieu – limited because I do not find it particularly useful or important from an art historical perspective – that Allington has misread Bourdieu’s intentions. The quote at the beginning of this piece is from the first paragraph of The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods. It clearly illustrates Bourdieu’s disdain for the ‘arts business’. Bourdieu’s entire essay is about the complicit nature of all participants in the field of cultural production who, by refusing commercialism and even claiming to be ‘anti-economic’, actually profit via a ‘disinterested’ game of smoke and mirrors that ultimately creates ‘symbolic capital.’ But symbolic capital, as Bourdieu explains:
[I]s to be understood as economic or political capital that is disavowed, mis-recognized and thereby recognized, hence legitimate, a ’credit’ which, under certain conditions, and always in the long run, guarantees ’economic’ profits.
Indeed, Bourdieu goes on to explain that this ‘circle of belief’ ensures that ‘only those who can come to terms with the “economic” constraints inscribed in this bad-faith economy can reap the full “economic” profits of their symbolic capital.’ So, this is like The Emperor’s New Clothes. The believers know the ‘magic’ isn’t real because they all dance the bad-faith dance, round and round. Producers, curators, critics, sellers, buyers, even (sometimes) the viewing public, all play the art game – they all know their place, their role in a field where naivety has no place; an arts economy where:
In and through the games of distinction, these winks and nudges, silent, hidden references to other artists, past or present, confirm a complicity which excludes the layman, who is always bound to miss what is essential, namely the inter-relations and interactions of which the work is only the silent trace.
So, rather than ‘conceptualising’ intrinsic cultural value as a form of circulated belief as Allington does in his essay, one could view the production of visual art (taking Allington’s example) as the making of an object of personal choice which is then selected by an institution/ commercial gallery and marketed to audiences by a variety of means (including critics). Only then are values (cultural, economic, social) assigned to it which are then reassigned to the work over and over as it ages and is perceived anew by different audiences.
So my argument with Allington is that he has misread Bourdieu in his attempt to investigate intrinsic cultural value. He has not accounted for the bad faith inherent in Bourdieu’s critical analysis of the art world game – a position I do not hold to personally. Bourdieu made his position very clear in 1972 when he explained:
The denial of economic interest finds its favourite refuge in the domain of art and culture, the site of [a] pure [form of] consumption, of money, of course, but also of time convertible into money. The world of art, a sacred island systematically and ostentatiously opposed to the profane world of production, a sanctuary for gratuitous, disinterested activity in a universe given over to money and self-interest, offers, like theology in a past epoch, an imaginary anthropology obtained by the denial of all the negations really brought about by the economy.
I would recommend interested readers take a look at Brigit Fowler’s essay Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture (Variant, 1999) for more on this subject.
I could expand but I’ve still exceeded 800 words (975) – the limit imposed by the #culturalvalue initiative debating rules. But I like to break rules.
 Pierre Bourdieu, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980, p.261.
 Daniel Allington, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/
 Pierre Bourdieu, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980, p.266.
 Ibid., pp.261-262.
 Ibid., p.262.
 Ibid., p.263-264.
 Ibid., p.291.
 Daniel Allington, Op. Cit., describes this process as: ‘the value of (say) a visual artist’s work (essentially produced through interactions among cultural producers) flows out into the wider social world through the disseminating agency of (say) a retrospective exhibition in a major public gallery, which plays a direct role in reproducing belief in that value among members of the public who attend the exhibition, as well as an indirect role in reproducing belief among those who hear about it from acquaintances and/or read about it in (say) a newspaper critic’s review (and which in turn impacts back upon the field by cementing the artist’s reputation , though this closure of the feedback loop is left out of the diagram for simplicity’s sake).’
 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977 , p.197.
 Brigit Fowler, ‘Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture’, in Variant, Volume 2, Number 8, Summer 1999, pp.1-4.
Allington, Daniel, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/
Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977 
Bourdieu, Pierre, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980
Fowler, Brigit, ‘Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture’, in Variant, Volume 2, Number 8, Summer 1999
This mini-essay was first published on the #culturalvalue initiative website on 5th January 2014. I’m reblogging it here with their introduction.
Stephen’s witty and well researched mini-essay contribution to The #culturalvalue Initiative originated in a lively twitter conversation that followed the publication of Daniel Allington’s guest post, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective in early December 2013. The conversation started off as a debate on the merits of Bourdieu’s work in pushing forward the cultural value debate and soon broadened to the relative merits of different disciplinary approaches. I was fascinated by the exchange between Stephen and Daniel, but it soon became apparent that it was more complex than a twitter debate could cope with. So, I invited Stephen to write a short guest post response to Daniel’s piece so that interesting conversation could continue on this site. This would allow to keep a permanent record of it and to facilitate a wider participation in the discussion. As it is often the case when reflecting on complex matters, Stephen’s rejoinder to Daniel’s post has developed into a free-standing and rich longer piece of writing in its own right, and the result is the latest offering in our mini-essays series! In the dialogical spirit in which this piece was conceived, I hope readers will enage in the debate via the comments facility, but, if you need more room for your thoughts, just get in touch!
John Heartfield, Hurrah, the Butter is Finished!, cover for AIZ, Photomontage, December 19th 1935.
Reproduction, appropriation, new narratives, and opposition to hegemonies: techniques art has used to challenge the mass-produced cultural propaganda of fascism, late imperialistic capitalism and outmoded intrinsically conservative, individualistic and modernist beliefs about autonomy. This type of avant-garde approach had real cultural importance and it was dangerous. Mass-produced counterpropaganda threatens governments by challenging policy; by using the very tools of mass-marketing, it challenges the markets, exposing the shallow reproduction of consumerist messages.
This type of art is one example that may offer a different way to think about artistic practice and aesthetics, production and distribution, etc.; that may lead to alternative notions of “cultural value” – however that slippery term might be defined. This essay is not about reviving modernist debates about “art-for-art’s sake”, misreading and decontextualising Bourdieu’s structuralism, heroic artists apparently driven to create work to earn ‘the esteem of fellow producers’ by ‘deeply believing’ in “cultural value”, network analyses and diagrams, or circular arguments about the “intrinsically cultural” value of “culture”. Rather, this essay attempts to re-situate contemporary arts practices, particularly those that acknowledge art’s role as ‘a social product’ that ‘always encodes values and ideology’, at the heart of current debate about “cultural value”.
The arts are about audiences but also about participation through social engaging activities; about artists who, on the whole, struggle to make a living and often care greatly about the communities they are part of; about arts organisations (big and small) and their eternal struggle to convince politicians and economists of their multifarious values that extend well beyond financial return on investment, evidencing impact, missions, models, evaluation, etc.; but they are also about the production of radical anti-hegemonic thinking and challenging, rather than conforming to, state sponsored social agendas. Twenty-first century art is, like every aspect of our societies, in turmoil. Postmodernism makes it difficult for art to avoid negating itself and find meaning in many of its practices; political and economic interventions (including “instrumentalism” – defensive or otherwise) encourage the arts to conform to policies that are predominantly not about art or participants or artists or social change or communities; in-vogue (yet, from many business perspectives, out-dated) “governance” models that aim to minimise risk and support “resilience” are effectively imposed upon arts organisations and even artists by funders and policy makers; we are all encouraged to become “self-sustaining” and market-oriented; not to mention philanthropy, austerity, consumerism, popularism, etc. etc. And whilst fairness is desperately needed across every area of arts and culture, now is definitely not the time to argue reductively that we should conceive solely of ‘culture as an economic activity’.
Michel Ell, Des Kaisers neue Kleider, Woodcut, 1923.
The current dominant economic-driven narrative for the arts is a lot like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and we must avoid a situation where “cultural value” (indeed all elements of arts and culture) becomes ‘the most exquisite cloth imaginable’ and those who cannot see it are either ‘unfit for post’ or ‘inadmissibly stupid’. We all know that arts experiences cut from an unravelling economic cloth will be divisive and limp and that value-based investment policy may even lead to our measuring ourselves out of existence. But we can’t pretend to embrace this state imposed fallacy. We must play the innocent child and shout, ‘He doesn’t have anything on!’ The Emperor (state) will still, no doubt, continue his procession, prouder than ever, but will probably wear a different suit next time. If everyone stands quiet, it is quite possible that arts and culture will finally be subsumed by aesthetic and commodity production in a “return of the aesthetic” that, when ‘the aesthetic (and even culture as such) is necessarily blurred or lost altogether’, will also signal its end.
All is not lost for the arts and culture. The arts market is flourishing like Ragwort on overgrazed pasture, fertilised by shallow aesthetic surplus value, it has ‘attained complete autonomy, completely cut off from the real economy of value’. The arts market is the epitome of cynical postmodern consumerism and the cult of celebrity; it reviles “popularism” because populist art is unpretentious, encourages participation, is not a commodity and does not deify “experts”. And herein lies three challenges to “cultural value” debates, future policy decisions and the ways many existing arts organisations work:
· Pay full attention to socially engaged art practice, artists and the importance of participation. At present, these are barely mentioned. Perhaps because this practice may be ‘too useful and therefore too much of a departure from the art-for-art’s-sake norm’, it is not considered as “art” by some. But the ‘lens of validation’ is opening to participatory practices that previously ‘were tolerated on the margins or held outside the narratives of power in the art process.’
· Understand the important role for “critical postmodernism” from the perspectives of both practice and theory. Bürger’s notion of the antiaesthetic is inherently participatory and challenges ‘the autonomous “institution of art”… to reverse the bourgeois hierarchy of aesthetic exchange-value and use-value… [by replacing] originality with technical reproduction’. This approach does not purport to transmit exceptional knowledge. It is utilitarian, contextualising art as ‘social’. We need a postmodernism of resistance that heightens ‘the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art’.
· Reimagine “sustainability” of arts and cultural practice and institutions. There are many who see sustainability as maintaining the status quo and preserving the big organisations at the expense of the small; big exhibitions, shows, events instead of small, grassroots initiatives that develop creative self-expression of people in communities most in need. As Diane Ragsdale recently said, ‘The arts are here to say, “We see you. We see this community. We see that for every one person that’s doing OK one person in this community is suffering. We do not exist exclusively for those that are doing OK. We exist for everyone. We exist for you.”’ All parts of the arts “ecosystem” must be sustained but sometimes this involves an ‘unnatural perpetuation of what might otherwise die’. We must decide whether public funding should be redirected towards those who need it most, perhaps at the expense of the elitist institutions.
Hopefully, this essay offers something to the “cultural value” debate. It is a polemic. It is meant that way. It seeks to try and explain why artists and some arts organisations feel a bit detached from discussions about policy. It aims to show that there are areas and, more importantly, people and communities that we must not neglect when “valuing” the arts and culture and deciding how and what we “invest” in.
We must support and value art that is truly useful and engaging; encouraging “non-artists” to participate in and lead future arts projects that add new value to the lives of people and communities; and artists who are also able to fulfil the roles of mentors, activists and educators. We must ‘reconnect art and lived experience as social process’, ensuring that ‘[s]ocial concerns are addressed through the creative process, rather than art being an instrument of social policy and a solution to deep-rooted social problems.’ This way of perceiving participation in socially engaged arts ‘involves a significant shift from objects to relationships’; it creates a radical space separate from consumerism and the arts market ‘in which the paradigm of social consciousness replaces that of individual genius.’ This is socially engaged practice inspired by critical postmodernist resistance that, as Dick Hebdige explains, ‘can help us rediscover the power that resides in little things, in disregarded details, in aphorism (miniaturised truths), in metaphor, allusion, in images and image-streams’. We must sustain the “arts ecosystem” by allowing some old wood to burn in small fires; a process of renewal. We must be wary of economic arguments about growth and instead proudly sing songs about our role as socially engaged artists and keeping helping people write new stories – their stories – because as Diane Ragsdale honestly said: ‘We are here to foster empathy, understanding of self, and understanding of other. We are here to gently, or not-so-gently, open people’s eyes to truths they cannot see or choose not to see: suffering and ugliness and their opposites love and beauty.’
This essay was supposed to be 800 words long. It isn’t. But, sometimes, you must expand boundaries to enable participation in open debate.
Allington, Daniel, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/
Andersen, Hans Christian, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 
Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Art between Utopia and Anticipation’, 1996, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005
Beasley-Murray, Jon, ‘Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx’, in Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, eds., Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2000
Belfiore, Eleonora, “Defensive instrumentalism” and the legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies, 2012, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/51182/1/WRAP_Belfiore%20Final%20CT%20accepted%20-%20Defensive%20instrumentalism.pdf
Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood, Penguin Books, London, 2008 
Buchloh, Benjamin H.D., ‘The social history of art: models and concepts’, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism – Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011
Gablik, Suzi, Has Modernism Failed?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984
Gablik, Suzi, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992
Hebdige, Dick, ‘A report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the “Politics” of Style’, 1986-7, in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Ideas, Phaidon, London, 1992
Huyssen, Andreas, ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, 1984, in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998
Jameson, Fredric, ‘Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998
Matarasso, Francois, On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’, 20th January 2012, http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/
McGonagle, Declan, ‘Foreward’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007
O’Brien, Dave, Is 'creativity' arts policy's big mistake?, The Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog, 30th October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/30/creativity-cultural-policy-big-mistake
Ragsdale, Diane, Holding Up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? Version 2.0, Keynote speech at ‘State of the (Arts) Nation’, Belfast, 12th March 2013 http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Holding-Up-the-Arts-DE-Ragsdale-2013.pdf
Reiss, Vivienne, ‘Introduction’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007
Stallabrass, Julian, ‘Elite Art in an Age of Populism’, in Alexander Dumbadze/ Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf
Wolff, Janet, The Social Production of Art – Second Edition, Macmillan, London, 1993
 For more on the difficulty of defining “cultural value”, see Francois Matarasso, On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’, 20th January 2012, http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/
 “Art-for-art’s-sake” claims “true” (or “high”) art should only be valued for its intrinsic qualities and be completely separate from any moral, utilitarian and educational functions: a modernist and elitist perspective that typifies the discourse of white, middle-class men, notions of beauty, class, superiority, etc. and culminates, as Walter Benjamin suggested, in the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ of fascism - see Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood, Penguin Books, London, 2008 , p.38.
 For more on Bourdieu’s problematic term “cultural capital” and its inadequate account of the accumulation of surplus and therefore themes relating to wealth, profit and exploitation, see Jon Beasley-Murray, ‘Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx’, in Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, eds., Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2000, pp.100-116
 Daniel Allington, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/
 Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art – Second Edition, Macmillan, London, 1993, p.1.
 There are three prominent platforms for discussion and research about “cultural value” in the UK at the moment. They all have different definitions of the term and claim to have (slightly?) different agendas. The AHRC Cultural Value Project (http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/Funded-Research/Funded-themes-and-programmes/Cultural-Value-Project/Pages/default.aspx) aims to investigate and evaluate cultural experience and engagement; The #culturalvalue Initiative (http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2012/08/30/cultural-value-a-central-issue-for-the-cultural-policy-community/) seeks, through open debate, to reinstate the voices and values of the humanities and social sciences in the face of overwhelming drives towards discourses of economic value; and the recently instigated Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/research/warwickcommission/futureculture/) will investigate culture’s “DNA”, using “ecosystem” as a metaphor, so they suggest how best to “invest” in all forms of culture. Artists to not tend to often play significant roles in these discussions. “Policy”, with all its many heads, usually dominates.
 For more on instrumentalism in the arts see, for example, Eleonora Belfiore, “Defensive instrumentalism” and the legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies, 2012, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/51182/1/WRAP_Belfiore%20Final%20CT%20accepted%20-%20Defensive%20instrumentalism.pdf
 Dave O’Brien, Is 'creativity' arts policy's big mistake?, The Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog, 30th October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/30/creativity-cultural-policy-big-mistake
 Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 , p.65.
 Ibid., p.71.
 Fredric Jameson, ‘Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998, p.111.
 Jean Baudrillard, ‘Art between Utopia and Anticipation’, 1996, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005, p.57.
 Julian Stallabrass, ‘Elite Art in an Age of Populism’, in Alexander Dumbadze/ Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, p.9. http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf
 Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984, p.29.
 Declan McGonagle, ‘Foreward’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007, p.6.
 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘The social history of art: models and concepts’, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism – Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011, p.25.
 Andreas Huyssen, ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, 1984, in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, pp.336-337.
 Diane Ragsdale, Holding Up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? Version 2.0, Keynote speech at ‘State of the (Arts) Nation’, Belfast, 12th March 2013, p.14. http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Holding-Up-the-Arts-DE-Ragsdale-2013.pdf
 Ibid., p.7.
 Vivienne Reiss, ‘Introduction’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007, pp.10-13.
 Declan McGonagle, Op. Cit., p.6.
 Vivienne Reiss, Op. Cit., p.17.
 Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992, p.7.
 Ibid., p.114.
 Dick Hebdige, ‘A report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the “Politics” of Style’, 1986-7, in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Ideas, Phaidon, London, 1992, p.340.
 Diane Ragsdale, Op. Cit., p.14.
This post is a direct response to a recent contribution to the Cultural Value Initiative blog entitled ‘A view from one of them econocrats: Efficiency and public libraries in England’ and written by economist Doctor Javier Stanziola.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
Dickens, Charles, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Chapter 1, 1859
There was a time when life seemed simpler, when public services were dull grey and reliably quiet. Our libraries epitomised this sense of safe social security. They were ubiquitous; full of books that were falling apart, impossible to find because they were often misfiled, not a computer in sight, and the silence was deafening. It was a case of ‘seek and ye shall find’ (or not) and that made going to the library, whether local or city central, like an expedition – one where you’d always leave with a sports bag full of brilliant books and a dog eared card stamped to within an inch of its literature-lending life. Intrepid days like this brought me into contact with Blake, Wilde, Huxley, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Jung and many, many more. I often kept the books too long. I got fined but even the penalties were manageable.
Library life has changed. There are now two types of library: run-down local ones, staffed by well-meaning volunteers and open a couple of hours a day; and big, high-tech central ones, where computer space and coffee shop seems more important than books on shelves, where exhibitions and events and workshops attempt to lure ‘new customers’ who presumably aren’t just tempted by the prospect of ‘borrowing’ books for free. Twenty-first library life is remarkably similar to the beginning of Dickens’ seminal ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Austerity is the name of the game. A game of two halves: the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Little libraries are closing in poor areas, being taken over by the ‘great and the good’ volunteers in well-off places, and being ‘enhanced’ in central mega-libraries where local councils seek to nestle all their literary eggs in one big, fancy glass-fronted basket – ‘learning zones’. In this time of austerity, economics has been crowned a new cultural king - a vestige perhaps more akin to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Libraries have a new mission: to maximise profit and efficiency and diversify sources of income. They are apparently privileged because, as Stanziola claims, ‘statutory funding allows local authority libraries to work outside the market’. But what if public libraries and indeed public services in general were not and should not be perceived as being part of ‘the market’? What if this drive for libraries to declare their value and, in so doing become part of ‘the market’, is a drive towards a homogeneous service that attempts to define itself in terms of ‘maximising provision’ and ‘distribution’? Perhaps then libraries are not really about lending books anymore?
These are challenging times for libraries, arts, culture, and indeed every aspect of our lives. We are still struggling to escape the gloom of a deep economic recession. To do so we are told we must make drastic financial savings wherever necessary. Only then might we usher in a shiny new economic future. Doctor Eleonora Belfiore is right to point out that we face ‘awkward questions’. The DCMS and Arts Council England are apparently looking for ‘sensible answers’. Where? In reports by economists. But don’t worry, says Stanziola, we’d be wrong to think 'cultural policy making has been hijacked by economists'. Really? ‘Cultural policy’ in the UK was created by Keynes – an economist – and Arts Council England was created to deliver this policy. Indeed, it may be fair to suggest that every aspect of our lives has been ‘hijacked by economists’. So it is that we pray before the same alter of economics that created our current ‘season of Darkness’ in the hope that economics will breathe forth a new ‘season of Light’.
So, back to libraries. They’re not apparently places where you lend books or read books, they’re places of ‘co-production’. This is where their value lies: in the ‘provision of public services as a participatory process where users play the role of co-producers’. Indeed Stanziola assumes that the ‘social and educational outcomes libraries can produce are unlikely to happen without the active co-production of the intended users’, especially volunteers. Let me be clear, I do not doubt that involving people from all areas of our communities in developing and delivering publicly funded library services is key to ensuring we meet the needs of ‘service users’. I also know that the value of volunteering is immense and can always show positively in terms of economic efficiency – not least because volunteers don’t get paid and therefore offer real savings over staffing costs. I am just a little concerned that the coarse language of economics and its fetishisation of ‘measurement processes… courageous assumptions and disappointing datasets’ IS invading our cultural landscape, ‘remapping’ cultural activity to create a hyperreality so convincing that we all believe that economic data is our culture. Stanziola (living in ‘the epoch of belief’) suggests that ‘this should not stop us from engaging with different measurement techniques to explore the complex dynamics behind cultural provision and use.' I live in ‘the epoch of incredulity’. I understand economics but I don’t believe such over simplistic and reductionist approaches will ever ‘play a key role in ensuring awkward questions about cultural provision could be finally tackled.’
Perhaps we should look for the answers in books, in libraries? Ask people, listen to protests about cuts, and provide adequate funding. Maybe public libraries are last bastions of ‘the best of times’? Places where we found ‘the age of Wisdom’. Let’s not lose them under the economic snow of another cultural ‘winter of despair’.